The Myth of Sisyphus
Absurd Creation: Ephemeral Creation
The example of Dostoevsky shows us the difficulty of remaining consistently with the conflict of the absurd. Though Dostoevsky begins with the desire to test out the absurd, he ultimately allows the hope for another life to seep in. Camus names only one novel that he thinks is consistently absurd: Melville's Moby Dick. However, Camus says that the dearth of absurd novels is as instructive as if there were many. We can learn a great deal about what constitutes absurd art by observing how other works fall short of that goal. We learn how easy it is to hope, to aspire toward unity or order, and in learning this, we also learn how important it is to maintain constant awareness that all hope is futile.
The absurd artist must perpetually evacuate from his mind any hope or expectation for a life beyond this one, says Camus. The absurd artist finds his inspiration in this very negativity, working with full awareness that even his work is in vain. He must deflate any notion that life or the world is anything greater than what we perceive, but at the same time make the most of this life. The discipline and clarity of mind necessary for artistic creation helps the artist maintain a sharp awareness of the absurd. His art, as a reflection of his absurd awareness, is something of an autobiographical record that tracks his changing consciousness as it grows richer in experience.
In saying that artists must remain constantly aware of the abstract principles of the absurd is not to say that their art should try to expose the philosophical ideas that underlie absurd reasoning. A novel is not a philosophical thesis dressed up in images. It prefers the concrete to the abstract, the particular to the general, and diversity to unity. A novel presents a certain perspective on the world that has no intentions to make some grand, unifying statement about human nature. For the absurd man, there is no such thing as hope or philosophical doctrine, and absurd art should not point to either of these things.
Camus summarizes his discussion of the variety of absurd lives, saying that life ends with death, but until then, everything is up to us. If we are not bound by the thought that there is a life after this one—or that there is some higher being that determines what is right and wrong—then this life becomes entirely ours, and we can live as we choose.
The title of this chapter pretty much summarizes Camus's central point in this third part: absurd creation is ephemeral creation. An absurd artist does not hope to give answers or to make some lasting and important statement. Instead, he tries simply to reflect the world as he sees it, with full knowledge that both he and his art will fade into irrelevance and die. Camus does not see art as a form of non-religious transcendence, as many thinkers have, in which the artist uses a particular story to reach universal themes and meaning. For the absurd artist, the particular story is ultimately all there is: there are no universal themes or meaning for which to aim.
The main purpose of creating art, Camus seems to conclude, is that it helps the absurd artist live in the present and maintain his awareness of absurdity. This conclusion seems exclusively concerned with the artist, and not at all with the viewing public. There is an interesting back-and-forth in the study of aesthetics, where the value of art is sometimes discussed from the point of view of the artist, and sometimes from the point of view of the public. Kant, an abstract philosopher, discusses the concepts of beauty, sublimity, and so on in his Critique of Judgment exclusively from the perspective of the person viewing the art. Camus, by contrast, is an artist himself, and perhaps this is why his discussion of the value of art focuses exclusively on the value of that art to the artist.
It should not be hard to fill in the gaps for Camus, however, especially if we take his own early fiction to be representative of what he thought writing should be at that stage of his career. Writing The Stranger may well have helped Camus in his own struggle with the absurd, but this is something we would have to take on faith. What we can know is the effect it has on us. If nothing else, The Stranger gives us a much clearer sense than The Myth of Sisyphus does what Camus means when he talks about the absurd man. We also find in The Stranger that Camus tends to stay true to his principle that novels should deal with the concrete and not try to serve as a soapbox from which to preach an abstract philosophy. The story is mostly rooted in events and characters, and philosophical notions are more often implied than explicitly stated. What we get out of The Stranger is not an explicit sense of "this is what Camus means by 'absurd,'" but rather we get an evocative picture of how the world looks from an absurd perspective. We are coaxed into seeing how one can live the absurd consistently, and in this way, absurd art (at least that which Camus gives us) helps us gain and maintain absurd awareness as well.
(A more complete discussion of The Stranger and how it relates to the themes discussed in this essay is appended to this SparkNote.)
In Camus's assertion that art should remain in the realm of the concrete, we find one important difference between him and his contemporary, Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre was the leading figure of French existentialism, and he and Camus were quite close at the time The Myth of Sisyphus was written. Sartre had recently published his classic novel, Nausea, in which he lays out his existential philosophy. The difference between Nausea and The Stranger is that Nausea often reads like a philosophical discussion. The protagonist is an academic, and he engages in lengthy abstract discussions of different philosophical problems. The Stranger, by contrast, contains no philosophy until the end, and the protagonist is a simple-minded office worker.
While Sartre is a better philosopher than Camus, Camus is probably the better novelist. In The Stranger, Camus gives us a world, rich in experience, and mostly leaves us to draw our own conclusions. Nausea is much more confined, demanding that we follow a certain line of thinking. One often wonders why Sartre bothered to write a novel at all when all he seems interested in is discussing philosophy.
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